Saturday, February 06, 2021

The Second Sunday before Lent (Sexagesima)

Here is an extended version of the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Second Sunday before Lent (Sexagesima).

The Second Sunday before Lent

Reading: John 1:1-18

Our Gospel reading this week is the well-known passage that begins St John’s Gospel. ‘In the beginning was the Word …’, St John writes. This is the passage that we read every year at the Christmas Midnight Mass. It is a passage I have preached on many times. In fact, the last time was only a few weeks ago. You can still listen to the sermon on YouTube!

I both dread and look forward to preaching on it. I look forward to preaching on it because it is an incredible piece of writing that describes who Jesus is. I dread preaching on it because no sermon can ever do it justice. For many years, I have felt that I have never come near, and I doubt that I will ever feel that I have. You may wonder, then, why I don’t give up and preach on something else. It is a fair question! However, my hope is that maybe I can help explain bits of it in a way that can help people to understand it more.

In the sermons at Christ Church during Epiphany, we have been reflecting on words from it: ‘he came unto his own’. We have been looking at what it meant in historical terms for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us. I will be picking up again on this in a moment. I want this week, however, to begin by asking a question of identity. I have just quoted part of verse 14 of chapter one. The verse in full says:

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14)

The question, then, is this: who are the ‘we’? Who are the ‘we’ who have seen the glory of the Word become flesh? Understandably, this is a question we don’t take too much time over as there are so many other things to think about in what St John writes in this opening to his Gospel, which is commonly known as the Prologue. There are a number of possible answers.

Firstly, the ‘we’ could simply be an ‘authorial we’, that is, the author is using the literary equivalent of the royal ‘we’. It could be that he is saying that he has seen Jesus’ glory and is now sharing it with us. Preachers use ‘we’ in this way all the time, and I have done so already in this sermon.

This is certainly the least it means. The Gospel claims to be based on eye-witness testimony. It describes the person who gives this testimony as the ‘Disciple whom Jesus loved’ (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20. Some also think the reference is to him in John 18:15-16) He has become known as the ‘Beloved Disciple’ because of this.

Although the Gospel itself doesn’t give a name to the Beloved Disciple, traditionally the Church has identified the Beloved Disciple as St John, one of the two sons of Zebedee who appear prominently by name in the other three Gospels. This St John and his brother St James, we know, were part of Jesus’ inner circle. St John himself is strongly linked with St Peter and appears as a close associate of St Peter in St Luke’s account of the early Church in the book of Acts. St Paul, in his letter to the Church of Galatia, tells us that St John was regarded as a pillar of the Church (Galatians 2:9).

While not all scholars today are happy to identify the Beloved Disciple as this St John, it is interesting that at the end of the Gospel, the Beloved Disciple is also closely associated with St Peter, and I personally think the early Church got it right. I am going to continue to refer to the author, then, as both the Beloved Disciple and St John and to see them as one and the same person.

However, returning to our question of who the ‘we’ are, we can say that it at least includes the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Gospel - whoever he is!

Secondly, though, the ‘we’ should not be limited to just the Beloved Disciple. The ‘we’ is more than just a literary royal ‘we’. ‘We have seen his glory’, includes the Beloved Disciple, but it also includes the Beloved Disciple’s fellow disciples. On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, we looked at the first sign that Jesus did at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11).

There are seven signs in St John’s Gospel. ‘Sign’ is the word that St John uses to describe Jesus’ miracles. Jesus’ miracles are not simply amazing acts that Jesus performs. They are that, but they are more than that: they reveal something of who Jesus is. They point us to his true identity. St John concludes his account of the first sign by writing:

‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2:11)

It has been both puzzling and somewhat embarrassing for believers that Jesus chose as his first sign to provide 120 plus gallons of wine for people who had already had a lot to drink. How does this reveal his glory? It may reveal his generosity and show his power, and sermons typically focus on these two points, but does it really reveal his ‘glory’?

We saw that there are two clues in St John’s account that help us to understand what is going on. The first is that it is a wedding at which Jesus takes over the role of the bridegroom whose responsibility it was to provide wine at a wedding. Secondly, wine in the Scriptures is symbolic of the Messianic age when it was believed God would redeem his people. With this sign, then, Jesus is revealing himself as the Divine Bridegroom who has come for his bride and who, as the Messiah, will provide the new wine of his Kingdom.

His first disciples, whose calling St John has described just before his account of the wedding, know their Scriptures and understand what is going on. This is why they believe in him. St John has told us that they have become Jesus’ disciples because they are looking for the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel. After this sign they believe in him. Not because they have all this lovely wine to drink, although that must have been nice, but because the sign points to Jesus as the One they are looking for and whom they will continue to follow after the effects of all that wine have worn off.

The ‘we’, then, includes the apostles, the first disciples of Jesus, who followed him believing him to be the Messiah, and to whom he entrusted the task of being his witnesses. What we are reading about Jesus in St John’s Gospel is not a story that St John has made up, but something that really took place for which there are eyewitnesses: they saw it; it happened.

Thirdly, and this is where we move beyond the obvious answer to the question of who the ‘we’ are, the ‘we’ also includes, as well as the apostles, all those others who believed in Jesus at the time.

So, it includes, as a good friend of mine points out, people like Nicodemus who saw Jesus’ signs and who were prepared to follow where they led, even if it took them a while to get there. It includes the woman at the well in Samaria and the blind man in Jerusalem. It also includes his friends in Bethany: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, who, only this past week, Pope Francis has approved a special day in the Church’s calendar to remember them on. (The day is July 29!) It includes others like them, such as Mary Magdalene, who was one of the first witnesses of the resurrection, Jesus’ ultimate sign.

But it includes, not only the apostles and those during Jesus’ ministry who believed in him, but also those who came to believe in him through the testimony of the apostles and the first eyewitnesses. Some of these helped to give us this Gospel. At the end of the Gospel, we read:

‘This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.’ (John 21:24)

The Beloved Disciple was part of a community of faith who helped produce the Gospel. Some in this community would have themselves come to believe in Jesus during his earthly ministry; some, however, would have become believers subsequently through the testimony of the Beloved Disciple. A prominent member of this community of faith was the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. We know this because the Beloved Disciple tells us explicitly in the Gospel that she is. The Beloved Disciple writes:

‘When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’ (John 19:26-27)

When it comes to seeing ‘these things’, you don’t get much closer than this.

We have then defined the ‘we’ quite widely: the Beloved Disciple, the apostles, those who first believed and those who believed because of them, especially those with the Beloved Disciple when he wrote, most notably the Blessed Virgin Mary. But we haven’t finished yet.

Why did St John and those with him write this Gospel? One answer is that having seen Jesus’ glory they wanted to tell people what they had seen and to provide a historical record of it. And they certainly did want to do that. They stress that the Beloved Disciple’s testimony is true. He saw it; it happened. This is not something they have made up. And contrary to what some scholars argue, it isn’t just St John putting words on Jesus’ lips. He saw Jesus’ glory, and he is sharing it with us.

But his main purpose in writing his Gospel isn’t primarily ‘so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed’ as it was for St Luke (Luke 1:4). Although he is concerned as an eyewitness to assure us of the truth of what he writes, St John shares the story of Jesus so that you and I his readers may see Jesus’ glory for ourselves and become part of the community of faith together with him and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Sts Peter, Nicodemus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and all the others who believed in Jesus. We know that this is his purpose because he tells us it is. He writes:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

The first disciples when they meet Jesus recognize him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel. They see his glory and they believe in him. Now they want us to join them in following and believing in Jesus: to become one of the ‘we’.

By describing Jesus signs, St John wants us to see them and to see Jesus’ glory in them, so that we too may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and by believing may have life in his name.

‘Life’ is a major theme of St John’s Gospel. ‘All things came into being through him …’, St John writes (John 1:3). ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind’ (John 1:4), he continues, bringing together the theme of Life with another important theme in the Gospel, that of Light.

Jesus tells the woman at the well in Samaria that he gives the ‘living water’ that leads to eternal life (John 4:10, 14). He tells those listening to him in Jerusalem that he came that those who become his followers ‘may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10). At the climax of his public ministry, Jesus says to Martha:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ (John 11:25-26)

These are well-known words, and they are often read at funerals bringing much comfort and hope. They provide us with a positive message that we need to hear when confronted with the awfulness and apparent finality of death. The pandemic has brought home to us just how mortal we are and how every one of us is never far from death. We begin today, on this the Second Sunday before Lent, to look forward to the start of Lent. Our mortality is a reality that we will be reflecting on more during Lent.

Jesus does indeed offer us life beyond death. But it is more than a prolonged physical existence. The life Jesus offers is not simply the immortality that delays our physical death or avoids it altogether. In fact, it is far from clear that everlasting life in this limited sense of physical survival is even a desirable thing to have. The many, including children, who commit suicide in large numbers every year would seem to indicate otherwise.

The life that Jesus came that we might have is indeed everlasting, but it is to be measured qualitatively as well as quantitatively. The fact that Jesus came that we might have it suggests that we don’t have it already. What is more, despite what many like to think, we don’t all receive it automatically now that he has come. After Jesus has told Martha that those who believe in him will never die, Jesus asks her a question that St John intends as a question for us as well:

‘Do you believe this?’ (John 11:26)

Martha gives the answer that St John hopes we will each give:

‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 1:27)

In the opening to the Gospel, St John has already told us that many in his day did not believe this. Many during Jesus’ earthly ministry saw his signs and didn’t become his followers. They saw the signs, but not what they pointed to and, as a consequence, they missed out on the life that Jesus offered. It is possible to see Jesus’ signs and not to see his glory and so instead of receiving his life to come under judgement.

Tragically, ‘his own did not receive him’, unlike Martha they did not believe this. However, St John tells us that we have been given the chance to receive what his own refused:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:12-13)

There is never the time in a sermon to say all that could or even should be said, but there are a couple things I would like to say in the light of all this.

1. We are not all naturally children of God

St John’s narrative is a very different narrative to the narrative we have been fed in which we are all ‘children of God’. Sadly, this narrative that assures us that we are all naturally the children of God is one you hear even in the Church. St John challenges it and challenges our secular versions of it in which we are all ‘children of the universe’, or in which we are told there is a ‘divine spark’ in each of us that if we discover will enable us to realize our potential. St John tells us plainly that the world is in darkness, and that includes us unless we come to him who is the Light.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, a religious leader in Jerusalem, that he must be ‘born again from above’ (John 3:3, 7). We are not naturally God’s children: we must become them. Spiritual enlightenment is not something we can achieve for ourselves: it is not by the ‘will of the flesh’. For us to become God’s children and to be made alive spiritually, something must happen to us; it is not something we can make happen ourselves.

All of which is so strange to us, so alien, that it passes over us. We can’t believe we are in darkness and not naturally children of God. It is, however, precisely because it is so alien to us that our new birth as children of God must happen by a direct intervention from God. The Father must draw us to Jesus, as Jesus himself puts it (John 6:44). We are so lost in the darkness, we won’t come to him otherwise.

2. We need to see his glory

The only way out of the darkness is to see his glory, which brings us back to where we began, to the ‘we’ who have seen his glory and to the need for us to believe in Jesus, so that we too may see it.

It is, then, perhaps now time to ask the question: what exactly is his glory? St John tells us that it is ‘the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

But what is it?

We talk today of a person’s ‘moment of glory’. These are occasions when we feel a sense of achievement. They are moments that reveal something important about us, perhaps something about us that has previously been hidden. We all have our own moments of glory, and they are different for each one of us. For an athlete, it could be winning a medal in the Olympics. For an actor, being awarded an Oscar. It could be achieving a significant promotion at work; graduating after years of study; or a moment of outstanding heroism or bravery – the sort people get awarded medals for. Or it could simply be doing something that really challenged us.

Before Jesus performed his first sign, he said ‘his hour’ had not yet come (John 2:4). In St John’s Gospel, everything is building up to this moment, to Jesus’ hour. When it arrives, Jesus says that this is the reason he has come (John 12:27).

His hour, his moment, is what his coming is all about. This is what his signs have been pointing to. But what is this moment when we see his glory? It’s the Cross. It’s dying a cruel, shameful, painful death rejected by his own to whom he came. It was this that was his hour; this was his moment of glory.

St Paul tells us that the Cross was a stumbling block to his own people. They couldn’t believe that the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of Israel could die such a humiliating death and at the hands of the very people he was meant to deliver them from. The Greeks thought it was just foolishness to suggest that such an appalling death could be anything other than a sign of weakness and failure.

We don’t necessarily put it like this today. But we still pass over the Cross as quickly as we can. If we were to dwell too long on the Cross, it might imply that there was more to it than that of a good man dying for what he believed in as many have died before and since. The Cross happened, we know that, but it happened, we think, because of people not understanding or liking Jesus’ teaching, or because they felt threatened by it. We don’t think it was necessary as such. The Cross doesn’t show his glory; his glory came later with his resurrection and his triumph over death. His death was a means to an end, but in no sense do we think it was an end in and of itself.

But we are wrong: the Cross was entirely necessary. And not only necessary, it was planned: God planned it. The Cross had to happen because the Cross was the only way for us to be able to see his glory and to become children of God. The Cross wasn’t the end in the sense that it ended Jesus’ life, but it was the end in that it was whole point of his life. This is what he came to do.

And now, his moment of glory must become ours as well. If we are to experience his life, we must share in his death. Jesus said that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we do not have his life in us (John 6:53).

When Jesus said this many of his disciples stopped following him. The idea that Jesus death was both necessary and that we have to completely identify with and participate in it was more than they could accept. It still is more than many of us are willing to accept. And yet, for those with the faith to see it, from the Cross shines the light of the glory of Christ offering us hope and life.

His glory is still there for us to see. Will we look at it or will we turn away? Will its light be too much for us? Will we prefer darkness to light? St John writes:

‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)

We will all have had the experience of being in a dark or dimly lit room and someone coming in and putting the light on. Our first reaction when this happens is say, ‘Turn it off!’. Many tried to turn off the light of Christ and many still try today, but the Light continues to shine in the darkness. It shines in the darkness of this world with its false values and priorities. It shines exposing the world’s emptiness and superficiality; its wickedness, evil, and sin. It exposes our emptiness and superficiality; our wickedness, evil, and sin.

As the Light shines now on us, we can turn to it or away from it. St John today invites us to become one of the ‘we’ who turn to the Light, and who in the Light of Christ see his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

We have seen his glory.

Have you?


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